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Monday, November 14, 2005

Obsolete and archaic language in Bible versions

The ESV Bible blogs's post for today is on obsolete and archaic language. The post repeats the claim that it is proper, even necessary, to use outdated language in English Bible versions, because such language is understood within church contexts and that such language often reflects technical terms in the original biblical texts.

But the post misses an important point about Bible translation. It is that the original biblical texts did not use obsolete or archaic language. Instead, they used the current language of the people to whom those texts were written. If Bible translators are to be fully accurate to the original texts, it is necessary for them to use the same kind of language found in the original text, namely, good quality literary language of the people for whom a translation is made. Translating in a different literary register from what the biblical texts were written in is not fully accurate translation. It diminishes the communicative accuracy of the translation since the translation does not communicate the meanings of the biblical texts as accurately and clearly to Bible users today as those original texts did.

The ESV post also claims:
We’ve mentioned before that the ESV Preface notes that the ESV “retains theological terminology… because of their central importance for Christian doctrine and also because the underlying Greek words were already becoming key words and technical terms in New Testament times.”
I have heard this claim before, that "the underlying Greek words were already becoming key words and technical terms in New Testament times" but I have never seen any evidence for this claim. I, personally, do not know of any terms used in the New Testament which were technical terms or becoming so. The vocabulary in the New Testament is from Koine (Hellenistic) Greek and was in common use, known to common (Koine) speakers. This includes words such as dikaiosune which is translated as "righteousness," a technical term in English, but not in the original Greek, and other Greek words translated to English terms such as "santification," "propitiation," "predestine," etc.

It suggest that those who make the claim that there are technical terms in the biblical source texts are using circular reasoning:
  1. Technical terms are used in their English versions.
  2. Because they are technical terms in English, they are believed to reflect underlying technical terms in Greek.
  3. Therefore, technical terms should be used in English Bible versions.
What is needed, to help us break out of circular reasoning, is empirical demonstration from ancient Greek that the meanings of the purported technical terms of Koine Greek had taken on special senses not known to those outside of the church of the New Testament. As far as I know, such evidence has never been presented. It is simply repeated, which, of course, is not evidence to support a claim.

I contend that since the Greek words were in common usage, Bible translators today should use English words which are in common usage to translate them. This is possible, but we often allow centuries of theological and church tradition to keep us from translating in such a way. May we return to the principles of Martin Luther and William Tyndale who believed it was important to translate into the language of the ordinary person, the hausfrau (housewife), as Luther said it, and the ploughboy, as Tyndale said it. If we translate into Koine English, corresponding to Koine Greek, not only will unchurched people understand the Bible better, but church people will also. In fact, my own experience as someone who has quite a lot of theological training, including being taught the definitions of theological words such as "sanctification," is that my heart and mind respond better to Bible versions which are written in good literary English which I use outside of church. The mental processing burden is less for anyone when they hear the Bible in their own language.

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24 Comments:

At Mon Nov 14, 02:42:00 PM, Blogger Funky Dung said...

In principle, I agree with you. Practically speaking, how does one use an appropraite register without sinking into the banality of the NAB?

 
At Mon Nov 14, 03:16:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

funky dung asked: Practically speaking, how does one use an appropriate register without sinking into the banality of the NAB?

Discipline, discipline, discipline!

 
At Mon Nov 14, 04:56:00 PM, Blogger exegete77 said...

Wayne LEMAN wrote: What is needed, to help us break out of circular reasoning, is empirical demonstation from ancient Greek that the meanings of the purported technical terms of Koine Greek had taken on special senses not known to those outside of the church of the New Testament. As far as I know, such evidence has never been presented. It is simply repeated, which, of course, is not evidence to support a claim.

From my perspective, I don't think that this is the focal point. Rather, that because of the NT usage of Greek words, those specific words - in the church throughout the centuries - gained an understanding and meaning that related to what the NT audience understood. It is this continuity issue that seems critical, not that we force back upon the NT something that the church has retained.

 
At Mon Nov 14, 05:48:00 PM, Blogger Chuck said...

Wayne,

What are your thoughts about the Septuagint's influence on the writers of the New Testament? If they allowed the LXX--obviously a religious document--to inform their choice of vocabulary and phraseology in their writings, what, if any, implications does that hold for translators today?

Should we consider that elements of past translations have infiltrated and influenced our language today in such a fashion that it's appropriate to continue using them?

Would love your thoughts, bro.

Appreciate the blog--keep up the great job!

 
At Mon Nov 14, 05:53:00 PM, Blogger Tim said...

By serendipity as you blogged this I was blogging about the BS in A's SMSBible, also using the koine argument. (See: TXT: Bible as koine.

 
At Mon Nov 14, 07:24:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Tim remarked: By serendipity as you blogged this I was blogging about the BS in A's SMSBible, also using the koine argument.

Yes, I saw that post of yours today, Tim, and I wondered if you had linked to my post. But when I read it, I realized yours was a different slant on a similar topic. I guess we can't trackback each other this time! :-)

 
At Mon Nov 14, 07:28:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Rich responded: From my perspective, I don't think that this is the focal point. Rather, that because of the NT usage of Greek words, those specific words - in the church throughout the centuries - gained an understanding and meaning that related to what the NT audience understood. It is this continuity issue that seems critical, not that we force back upon the NT something that the church has retained.

Rich, maybe I'm just slow tonight, but I don't see how the practical results are any different. To my mind, the church throughout the ages still has the option of translating the original, theologically important, words using the vernacular, ordinary language, rather than a special church language. It wasn't church language to start with, so I don't think we should keep church language in a translation. Doing so, I think, reduces full communication of the original text since the original text did not use special jargon (theological) words.

Am I hearing you yet? I'm not sure if I am, so please help me out if I'm not.

 
At Mon Nov 14, 07:43:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

c.l. asked: What are your thoughts about the Septuagint's influence on the writers of the New Testament? If they allowed the LXX--obviously a religious document--to inform their choice of vocabulary and phraseology in their writings, what, if any, implications does that hold for translators today?

Should we consider that elements of past translations have infiltrated and influenced our language today in such a fashion that it's appropriate to continue using them?


Hmm, interesting questions, ones I haven't spent time thinking about before. I guess my gut reaction is that the fact that N.T. writers did quote from the LXX translation sometimes, rather than the Hebrew Bible, has no bearing on how we should translate today. But I don't know if I'm being too pedantic about the matter. I do see some important differences between what the N.T. writers did and what Bible translators today can do. For one thing, the N.T. writers quoted from the LXX to make a spiritual point, typically messianic. The N.T. authors were creating additional scripture, even if they were not aware at the time that they were doing so. Bible translators do not create new scripture. They simply translate from the original source texts. There is no need for us to use any previous translations in order to translate to English or any other language. However, there is some value, in terms of text critical issues, to refer to ancient translations. Sometimes they throw some light on a question about textual variants. And sometimes a translation, such as the ancient Peshitta in Syriac, might help us understand better understand the ancient church's understanding of the meaning of a Greek or Hebrew word. So there *might* be some value there.

I think I would simply answer your second question with "no." Every language changes. It is clear from the literature that the English language has changed greatly during its many centuries of existence. But there is no advantage to use outdated, obsolete, or archaic language from any previous stage of English. The writers of Koine Greek did not, as far as I know, reach back into previous classical periods of Greek to find vocabulary to write the N.T. I think we should follow their example and translate into language that people know best, the language that they currently speak and write. There is no reason that I know of to do otherwise, other than tradition and fondness for the familiarity with mystical or sacred language. But retaining such non-current language provided a barrier to understanding for huge number of people both without and within the church, both groups of whom, presumably, we would want to be able to understand the Bible as accurately and clearly as possible.

Jesus didn't use classical, outdated language to speak to people. He spoke to them in their heart language, the language they knew best, what they have learned from their parents. I think we should do the same today, both in Bible translation and in other ways that we communicate biblical truth to others.

What do you think? Might there be any reasons to translated into language other than the language that people currently write and speak (good quality language, of course, not slang)?

 
At Tue Nov 15, 06:07:00 AM, Blogger Funky Dung said...

One argument for so-called church language would be consistency of meaning.

The Catholic Church uses Latin, a dead language, for all religious documents. Obviously, it is later translated into living languages for mass consumption. However, that first step of writing in Latin is crucial. By using a language that is no longer evolving, one is only very infrequently found thinking, "I wonder what this pope meant when he used this word" and other such thoughts. Living languages change, so eventually new translations from the Latin will be needed, but the fixed intended meaning is enshrined in the Latin. Perhaps church language is meant to be similar.

Some folks think certain words have been argued over and contemplated enough that they have essentially fixed meanings. While such terms no longer have colloquial currency, they have a certain clarity of meaning. English speakers on either side of the Atlantic can't agree on what "pissed" means, but perhaps they can agree on "sanctification". ;)

I'm not arguing for church language, per se. I'm mostly thinking out loud.

 
At Tue Nov 15, 08:07:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Interesting comments, Funky Dung. But it seems to me that the place of Latin in your RC documents example is taken by the original Greek and Hebrew. These are the unchanging texts in languages which are no longer evolving. And these are the texts which need to be translated repeatedly into living languages for mass consumption. But it seems that when people try to fix the English text in this way, they try to set it up as an alternative unchanging authority. Instead they should find the unchanging authority in the original language texts, and translations should be recognised as changeable.

 
At Tue Nov 15, 02:23:00 PM, Blogger Chuck said...

Hi Wayne,

Thank you for your time and your response.

I was probably unclear in my query, and I apologize for that. Certainly the New Testament writers quoted from the LXX. But if I remember correctly (I'm neither a Hebrew or Greek scholar and so am going on the studies of others) the New Testament writers were intimately familiar with the Septuagint, and that familiarity bore an influence on their writings beyond the quoting of a particular text. In other words, the vital role the LXX played in their lives contributed to how they framed their thoughts and influenced how they chose to communicate ideas--much as someone growing up with the KJV would include certain phrases or words that they were familiar with from that translation, even though such would be considered archaic in comparison to modern conversational english.

So my question was more along the lines of, "Should modern-day translators be sensitive to how older translations, though archaic, have infiltrated our vocabulary and become integrated into how we communicate ideas?"

I'm not really holding to a particular view concerning this--I just know that you think about these issues with considerable depth and might have some thoughts on this.

To answer your question:

"What do you think? Might there be any reasons to translated into language other than the language that people currently write and speak (good quality language, of course, not slang)?"

I would say no, but recognizing that we have a tradition of several hundred years of the Bible being translated into english, along with the fact that this tradition has had a tremendous influence on how a religious community writes and speaks, makes me sympathetic towards those who tend to resist changes in the English Bible.

On the other hand, I'm excited by the continual linguistic and textual discoveries that have been made, and our translations ought to reflect the most current scholarship. And I would agree with you that translations ought to reflect the language that people currently write and speak in. A translation published today will not be adequate 100 years from now, in my opinion.

I consider myself blessed that we have available to us many different translations of the Bible to study, memorize, and reflect on--something people in many cultures cannot share with us (which is why I esteem Bible translation ministries so much). The translations all have strengths which complement one another, which I take advantage of. I can't help but feel that my studies would be diminished if I had only one translation to read.

Hmmm, there's a potential poll question for your blog: "If you were stranded on a deserted island, which Bible translation would you want to have with you?"

Thanks again for your help Wayne.

 
At Tue Nov 15, 04:59:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

C.L. suggested that the New Testament writers were intimately familiar with the Septuagint, and that familiarity bore an influence on their writings beyond the quoting of a particular text. I have seen this suggested before, but I wonder if there is really any evidence for it. There is certainly evidence against it. For example, M. Silva has studied this subject, and concluded, in NTS 22 (1976) p.105, that there are only 60 examples of Semitic loans via LXX in the NT. I take this from an essay The Fiction of 'Jewish Greek' by GHR Horsley, in New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, volume 5, p.27. Horsley concludes that there is indeed no such thing as 'Jewish Greek', and that the NT was written in the regular Koine Greek of its time.

 
At Tue Nov 15, 05:30:00 PM, Blogger Chuck said...

Hi Peter,

My understanding is that the LXX is Koine Greek, same as the New Testament. Again, I want to be careful here because I'm basing my understanding upon interacting with the studies of others. If what I said came across as suggesting that the NT is "Jewish Greek" then I need to clarify, for that is not what I'm advocating.

Could you help me understand which part of my suggestion you'd have a differing view of?

1) The NT writers were intimately familiar with the LXX

2) The NT writers' familiarity with the LXX led to an influence on their thinking, and therefore their writings, including their phrasing and vocabulary

My thought was simply that the NT writers were no different than those of us today who memorize passages of a biblical text. The vocabulary and phrasing of those passages that are memorized or familiarized tend to be woven into our thinking and the articulation of our thoughts, both orally and written.

Any insights you could offer on this would be greatly appreciated.

 
At Wed Nov 16, 11:48:00 AM, Blogger Chuck said...

You know, I've reread my first post and to be honest, I have no idea what I was trying to communicate with that.

I guess that's what happens when you've been up late and your brain is meandering around.

Ah, well...

 
At Wed Nov 16, 06:34:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Well, it is late and my brain is meandering, but I will try to reply to C.L.

I am not convinced that the NT writers were all very familiar with the LXX (and I will leave aside the question here of what exactly we mean by "LXX" in a first century context). They were mostly Jews, and several of them were more familiar with Hebrew or Aramaic than Greek. Yes, when they quoted Bible passages they generally quoted LXX or something similar, because they were writing in Greek. But that does not imply that they were thinking in the words of LXX.

I could, with some difficulty, write a short "epistle" in Russian, encouraging brothers and sisters in Russia. If I quoted the Bible in the letter, I would quote from the Russian Synodal version which they probably use. But that does not imply that I am intimately familiar with the Russian Synodal, and that that familiarity will bear an influence on my writings beyond the quoting of a particular text. For I know the Bible primarily in English, not in Russian. The same would remain true even if I ever became as fluent in Russian as the NT authors seem to have become in Greek.

 
At Fri Nov 18, 04:58:00 PM, Blogger son of abraham said...

Wayne wrote: "But the post misses an important point about Bible translation. It is that the original biblical texts did not use obsolete or archaic language. Instead, they used the current language of the people to whom those texts were written."

Wayne, this is incorrect. There is a good deal of "archaic" language in the prophets. They used poetic diction that was not conversational Hebrew at the time they were writing. And in the Greek New Testament, the style is often heavily influenced by the Septuagint, which is NOT ordinary koine. It is "translation Greek" that reproduces Hebrew idioms, sentence structures, etc. The Greek style is a kind of Jewish religious style. (Not everywhere, but much more than you realize.)

 
At Fri Nov 18, 05:40:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Wayne wrote: "But the post misses an important point about Bible translation. It is that the original biblical texts did not use obsolete or archaic language. Instead, they used the current language of the people to whom those texts were written."

Wayne, this is incorrect. There is a good deal of "archaic" language in the prophets. They used poetic diction that was not conversational Hebrew at the time they were writing.


I'm sorry, Michael. I should have been more explicit. I was referring to the biblical languages, overall, in the biblical texts. We simply do not have the pervasive obsolescent language in them that we do in some English Bible versions, such as the ESV.

And in the Greek New Testament, the style is often heavily influenced by the Septuagint, which is NOT ordinary koine. It is "translation Greek" that reproduces Hebrew idioms, sentence structures, etc. The Greek style is a kind of Jewish religious style. (Not everywhere, but much more than you realize.)

That's some of what I have sensed also in the N.T., Michael. However, I've seen comments from biblical scholars recently that the idea of Hebraic Greek (if that's what you are claiming) has been discredited for quite some time. It seems clear to me that there is not only Jewish (including rabbinical) language, thought, and logic in the N.T., but also language influence (or "interference" as we linguists would call it). I guess it comes down to whether or not the cup is half full or half empty. The claim that the Greek of the N.T. is a special kind of Koine Greek has been discredited. I don't think that the claim that there is significant influence from the LXX and Hebraic/Aramaic linguistic forms has been discredited, at least not to my satisfaction.

But none of this negates the claim that, overall, the language of the Bible was written in the language of the biblical audiences. That is the point I was trying to make. The fact that God chose to speak in people's own contemporary language, for most of his written revelation, is a pattern that should be emulated whenever Bible translation is conducted, at any time or place.

 
At Fri Nov 18, 06:03:00 PM, Blogger son of abraham said...

Wayne wrote: "The claim that the Greek of the N.T. is a special kind of Koine Greek has been discredited. I don't think that the claim that there is significant influence from the LXX and Hebraic/Aramaic linguistic forms has been discredited, at least not to my satisfaction. But none of this negates the claim that, overall, the language of the Bible was written in the language of the biblical audiences."

Wayne, it seems to me that you just don't know much about this subject.

And it seems to me that you are using the word "language" in a very loose way that tends to confuse the questions at hand. We need to distinguish "language" from "dialect" and "style." The thing under discussion here is "style" for the most part, and perhaps "dialect" to some extent. Everyone agrees that the NT is basically written in the "language" of Hellenistic-era (Koine) Greek. But there are different levels of style within this language. And there are some distinctive things about the Jewish-Greek used in the NT. I have written a long article on this subject, which you may find helpful:

http://www.bible-researcher.com/language-koine.html

 
At Fri Nov 18, 08:17:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Michael, I'm not sure how to respond to your preceding comments. Dialect and style are very important areas of language, and I would include them under the umbrella of study of the languages of the Bible. Each of these areas has been of keen interest throughout my professional career as a linguist and editor. Thanks for listing your webpage on Koine Greek. I have read it. In fact, I have probably read most of your web pages and appreciate your careful research. I think that is all I should say in response to your comments.

 
At Sat Nov 19, 08:02:00 AM, Blogger son of abraham said...

Wayne, You know about dialects and styles from your studies in linguistics, in an abstract way, but do you have much specific knowledge about varieties of Hebrew and Greek? and are you familiar with exegetical literature? If you were familiar with exegetical literature, you would not be saying the things that you keep saying. For instance, when you deny that there are technical terms in the Greek New Testament, demanding "empirical demonstration" that some words and phrases are used in special religious senses ... what can I say to this? You only show how unfamiliar you are with exegetical literature. The diction of the New Testament owes a lot to the Hellenistic-Judaic background, in every chapter. Words are used in special religious senses all over the place. For example, the use of the word DOXA ("glory" of God). This word is sometimes used in a specialized religious sense, taken from Judaism, in reference to the "shekinah" or glorious manifestation of God's presence. It refers to a kind of hypostatization of the divine presence. You can find the word being used in an ordinary secular way (in the sense of "reputation") in some places, that is true, but there is this special or technical religious sense also. People in ancient times who were not familiar with this specialized "inside" language of the Church would not grasp the meaning in some places. They would need to become accustomed to the specialized Jewish and Christian usages. This is so well-established, yet you demand "proof" of it, because it conflicts with the talking-points of DE-translation apologetics. You are interested in getting people to think that the language of the New Testament was quite free of "jargon," and quite ordinary and transparent to non-Christians in the ancient world. But it isn't true.

 
At Sat Nov 19, 09:24:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Michael, your points are well taken and I am listening and learning. What would be helpful to me would be to read a thorough study of the vocabulary of the N.T. in which it is shown in the way you have discussed DOXA, the semantic extensions and other changes which took place as the N.T. authors wrote. If you happen to have a reference to such a resource already written, I would be grateful for it.

In the meantime, I believe that my overall point still stands, that the language of the N.T. is written in ordinary Koine Greek, colored, yes, as you and I both believe, by Hebraic influences. I believe that the overall language of the N.T. sets a pattern for how all Bible translations should be done, namely, in the current language of their target audience. Where it can be shown that a word has taken on a technical meaning, I would want that to be included. I have periodically read that there were technical terms in the N.T. but had never seen them listed nor explained. I have only seen English translations of them, which isn't logically satisfying to me. I want to see the Greek terms themselves as well as discussion of how their meaning had become technical.

Thanks for your contribution in your comment, Michael. We need more specific examples. Data, data, data! :-)

 
At Sat Nov 19, 10:38:00 AM, Blogger son of abraham said...

The best resource for this is the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament edited by Kittel, unabridged edition (10 voumes). The authors discuss the usage of key theological words in the contexts of various subcultures and periods, with separate treatment of classical, koine, LXX, Jewish, Christian, gnostic, etc. The article for DOXA fills twenty pages of small print. Highly nuanced, and more than you ever wanted to know. On a simpler level is Nigel Turner's Christian Words, in which he emphasizes specialized senses. And there are other theological dictionaries that regularly call attention to special usages, such as the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology edited by Brown. Sometimes Turner and the authors of the Kittel dictionary go too far in distinguishing Christian usages from common usages. They have been criticized on some points by other scholars (most notably, James Barr and his disciples). So some caution is in order. And of course the scholars will disagree with one another about various things. But in general the articles in the TDNT are quite respectable, and often cited as authoritative by other scholars. With these resources you can do much more precise interpretation than you can do with lexicons like the BAGD or Thayer's, and with better contextual sensitivity.

 
At Sat Nov 19, 10:38:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Michael, here's an idea which can benefit all of us: I invite you to write a guest post for this blog on the words of the N.T. which took on technical meanings. It would be helpful to include what semantic components were added to the Greek words so that they became "church words."

Some time ago I started a list of possible (emphasis on possible) candidates for such discussion. They might include logos, sarx, xaris (charis), ekklesia, nomos, kosmos, hamartia, diatheke, xristos (christos), dikaiosune, gramma, glossa, baptizo, pneuma, soter, etc.

I'd welcome your research and comments for such a post.

 
At Sat Nov 19, 10:41:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Michael, our last two comments crossed each other in the ether. Yes, I have had each of the resources you mention in my library. They are good, but need to be used with caution, as you say, to avoid etymological fallacies which Barr writes about.

I still think it would be good to have a summary list of technical terms in the N.T., and would welcome you creating one for a guest post to this blog. Would you be willing to write such a post?

 

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